What To Do in an Eco Emergency

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Oil-based paint spills are tougher to clean up. They are usually thinned with solvents like mineral spirits or turpentine. Photo: Flickr/_caffiend

Responsible homeowners, workers and weekend garage warriors we may be, but we’ve admittedly spilled a bit of paint, had some motor oil leak in the garage or dropped a CFL bulb.

Though not the catastrophic event that would be caused by spills of this kind in high volume, there is still good reason to take proper precautions for human and environmental health when a spill occurs or there’s simply no where to take your hazardous waste.

Problem: I broke a CFL.

The typical CFL bulb uses 66 percent less energy and lasts up to ten times longer than an incandescent bulb. Under the Clean Energy Act of 2007, incandescent bulbs are set to be phased out by 2014, meaning use and disposal of CFLs will increase dramatically.

But it’s important to remember that CFLs do contain trace amounts of mercury (about 4 milligrams on average) sealed within glass tubing, so they can’t be tossed in the trash.

The EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines for broken CFLs:

1.  Air out the room before clean-up.
Open a window or door and leave the room. (Don’t forget your pets!) Avoid walking through the breakage area, and shut off the central heating/air conditioning system.

2. Clean up the initial spill.
For hard surfaces, carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealed plastic bag. Use tape to pick up any remaining fragments. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe, then place that in the jar or bag. Do NOT use a vacuum to clean up the area on hard surfaces.

For carpeting or rugs, repeat the same steps for hard surfaces, but use a vacuum in place of a damp paper towel or wet wipe. The vacuum bag or vacuum debris should be placed in a sealed plastic bag. The next few times you vacuum after the initial cleanup, open a window and turn off central air/heat.

3. Don’t forget about exposed clothing, bedding and furniture.
If clothing or bedding comes into direct contact with the broken glass or powder, you will unfortunately have to throw those items away. They should not be machine washed as mercury fragments could contaminate the machine or pollute sewage. Clothing that hasn’t come into direct contact with the broken pieces can be washed. Shoes can be wiped with damp paper towels or wet wipes, and those towels should be placed in a plastic bag for disposal.

4. Dispose of your cleaning materials.
Place all cleanup materials in an outdoor trash bin for regular trash pickup. Be sure to wash your hands after disposal.

Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements as some states do not allow such trash disposal and require both broken and unbroken bulbs to be taken to local recycling center.

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Problem: I don’t know what to do with my motor oil.

We’ve all seen a neighbor hosing out his garage as water and oil run down the driveway and into the storm drains. Though the garage may look cleaner, the oils in the storm water runoffs are likely headed toward waterways with no treatment, depending on where you live.

Oil drips from cars, trucks, lawnmowers and other motorized equipment in the garage represent the most common sources of home oil spills. Most states consider these oils hazardous when they are in their liquid form and recommend using absorbent materials such as sawdust or kitty litter on paved surfaces to soak up the liquid.

The absorbent materials help trap the liquids into solid materials to prevent them from seeping into ground and surface water sources. Keep in mind that one gallon of motor oil has the potential to contaminate one million gallons of water. These minor spill cleanups can make a big difference! Contact your local state authority for regulations regarding proper disposal, as many states consider absorbed oil materials hazardous.

For those willing to go one step further, adoption of an environmentally friendly oil spill cleanup technique will avoid further potential environmental harm. Though using granular absorbents such as kitty litter is far better than letting oil enter water and ground sources, the technique does not biodegrade the oil. To completely biodegrade the oil requires bioremediation, a process which uses microorganisms and plant materials and enzymes to remove contaminants. Eco-friendly bioremediation products are readily available for consumer purchase and use.

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Problem: I just spilled my paint.

There are two types of paint: latex and oil-based. When it comes to spills, the hope is that you just spilled latex paint rather than oil-based paint. Luckily, the most common paints used in households today are latex (water-based) paints. They can be thinned or cleaned up using water, rather than paint thinner, meaning their spills are much easier to clean. Keep in mind that wet paint is much easier cleaned up then dry paint, which will need to be scraped away or pressure washed.

Oil-based paint spills, on the other hand, cause much more of a headache to clean up. They are usually thinned with solvents like mineral spirits or turpentine, which can damage floor floor coverings like carpet and rugs. Not to mention the clean up materials (rags, towels, etc.) are considered hazardous by most states and should be disposed of as household hazardous waste (HHW). There are products on the market to clean up oil-based paint spills, like Super Sorbent, though be mindful the waste materials could be considered hazardous by your state.

If you’re like most Americans and keep paint around for an average of seven years, disposal can be an issue. In fact, the EPA estimates that approximately 10 percent of the 637 millions gallons of paint sold annually becomes leftover paint, equaling about 64 million gallons per year! Make sure to take both latex and oil-based paint to local paint recycling locations as they can be reprocessed or re-blended into new paint (latex) or burned as fuel for energy production (oil-based).

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Problem: My curbside doesn’t accept my [insert hazardous product here].

It’s important to think of recycling as a business, and different materials have different resale or “commodity” values. Perhaps it’s no longer feasible for a community curbside program to collect a certain material, like expanded polystyrene or polyvinyl chloride plastic.

All hope is not lost. The first step is to see if there is a drop-off center nearby that will still accept these items. Maybe the product isn’t financially viable to pick-up, but if you’re willing to drop it off it will still be recycled. You can also experiment with reuse projects like these fun craft ideas with used plastic. Or better yet, consider what packaging is recyclable in your program while you’re at the store considering your purchase options.

You may also want to ask why a certain material is no longer accepted. Perhaps there was a contamination issue caused by a lack of information. If you don’t express interest in recycling a product, its acceptance will usually be based entirely on the economy.

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